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Targeting Grant Dollars by Population Group: The Debate Continues

June 29, 2009

(Larry McGill is the Foundation Center’s senior vice president for research. In a previous post, he wrote about the state of research on diversity in philanthropy.)


Ah, dueling research studies! Each making use of data from the same source -- the Foundation Center -- and each drawing different, yet not incompatible, conclusions. How can that be?

Published earlier this year, the NCRP report Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best analyzed available grants data coded by the Foundation Center as having benefited "marginalized populations" (as defined by NCRP using existing Foundation Center population group categories). The report noted carefully that it only counted grants explicitly targeted to serve such populations.

More recently, the Philanthropic Collaborative's Broad Benefits: Health-Related Giving by Private and Community Foundations analyzed both available grants data coded by the Foundation Center as well as a random sample of two hundred additional grants without population group coding. This allowed Phill Swagel, the report's author, to estimate the total benefit to marginalized populations of foundation giving in the field of health, whether or not these populations were explicitly targeted by grantmakers.

Both analyses make important points. If foundations aren't explicit about the intended beneficiaries of their grantmaking, then we can't know for sure that specific population groups have in fact been strategically targeted. NCRP argues that such strategic targeting is important.

On the other hand, even if foundations don't strategically target specific population groups, such groups may still benefit from their grantmaking. This is what TPC demonstrated in its report.

The third possibility, of course, is that foundations may not be telling us as much as they could about the population groups that benefit from their grantmaking. And that is surely true, as well.

And, by the way, let's remember that not all grantmaking should or even can be targeted to benefit specific population groups. NCRP's report recommends that grantmakers try to allocate at least 50 percent of their grantmaking to benefit marginalized populations, not all of it. That's an implicit acknowledgement that grantmaking cannot be reduced to simplistic equations such as “Grantmaking to Specific Population Groups = Good; “Grantmaking Not to Specific Population Groups = Bad.”

Fortunately, neither NCRP nor the Philanthropic Collaborative reduce the issue to such absurdities. My hat is off to both NCRP's Aaron Dorfman and Phill Swagel for the ways they have so effectively marshaled available data in the service of their respective causes. This is exactly the kind of conversation the Center's data on beneficiary populations should be generating.

-- Larry McGill

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Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   June 29, 2009 at 09:41 PM

Hey, Larry, nice post. It sounds like both reports make a good case for their respective points of view. But I'm intrigued by the third possibility -- that foundations aren't telling us everything they could be telling us about the intended beneficiaries of their grants. And I bet this isn't an isolated case. So, on the theory that the better the data, the better the analysis, I wonder what could be done to improve the data on this cluster of beneficiary populations? Or what could be done to improve the data available for grants analysis in general? I'm sure you have some ideas, and I bet our readers would love to hear them. Any other ideas out there?

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